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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion & Death of Jim Crow

Event Recap

Speaking on his new book, A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow  (University of North Carolina Press, 2004), Professor David L. Chappell from the History Department of the University of Arkansas addressed a lunch seminar at the Boisi Center on April 28. The book, which has been critically acclaimed in a number of reviews, challenges the idea that the civil rights movement is a story of a culminating triumph of liberal ideas. Chappell argues that the liberals’ belief in the inevitable social progress of reason, education, and human nature did not provide the cultural resources needed to create the climate of solidarity, passion, and self-sacrifice required for immediate social change. Black activists like Bayard Rustin, Fannie Lou Hamer, Modjeska  Simkins and Martin Luther King Jr., on the other hand, were far more effective because they had a more realist vision of the situation. They understood that power was a corrupting force and that those who had it would not relinquish it easily. They knew that a “prophetic Christian” message would resonate far more deeply and clearly than rational argument. They also knew that human nature was far more venal than white liberals credited. Chappell argues that black activists saw far more clearly that their struggle was to “hew a stone of hope from the mountain of despair,” in contrast to the optimism of northern white liberals. Chappell’s arguments are viewed as challenging some of the standard arguments in the interpretation of the civil rights, particularly in the emphasis that he gives to the role of religious understandings in the movement among black activists as well as white segregationists.